Monday, 24 March 2008

Palms (Aristakisyan, 1993)

Palms opens with footage of a silent film set during the Roman era. The ensuing images of women and children being torn to death by lions as a packed auditorium cheers establishes the notion of man's savagery from the outset. What follows is an elliptical jump to 1990 - but, in a disconcerting sign of things to come, the film stock retains the same grainy texture that defined the preceding century-old excerpts. In essence, Aristakisyan is telling us that nothing has changed, and so begins his despondent rumination on the state (and fate) of contemporary 'humanity'.

If one judges a society by the condition of its poor, then what the director offers here is an overwhelmingly damning indictment of the world in its entirety because, as far as this film is concerned, little exists outside of the impoverished misfits that populate its impaired milieu. Aristakisyan doesn't seek to place his mentally and physically disabled 'ensemble' into the constraints of conventional narrative, nor does he maintain any pretenses about the creation of a non-fictional work (his narration provides the characters with backstories, often used for dramatic purpose) - so, what the Hell is he doing?! Palms is perhaps most notably a portrait of the marginalized, that smothers its audience with harrowing images which they'd prefer to ignore. It's a film that shatters our utopian fantasies and forces an uncomfortable confrontation with individuals that are repressed on a daily basis. Therefore, one could argue that it's a social commentary, and the remnants of Communist relics visible during the film imply an engagement with the Moldovan national question as well. Moreover, Aristakisyan's narration repeatedly returns to the idea of a powerful, oppressive and undefined "system" that's failed its citizens. This isn't a simple critique, it's a browbeating assault that infuriates the viewer with a muddled ideology consisting primarily of anarchic variations on the idea of extrication from the "system" as the sole method of living.

That ideology is muddled with intent, however. Palms is a film that defies the shackles of reductive labelling, and accordingly it functions on a multitude of levels. Aside from scrutinizing the social then, Aristakisyan also penetrates the personal. Thus, through his narration (which, it should be noted, is the only sound to be heard in the film, besides the occasional intrusion of a Verdi piece) he assumes the role of a potential parent talking to his unborn child. This lends the film an occasional tenderness that's doubly refreshing given the visual context, as when he states: "I want to see so badly how you first look at me." We can deduce that it's tenderness which motivates his extended monologue as well, an attempt by a father to assuredly point the way for the next generation. Of course, this father is a product of the "system" that permeates the film, and his evident mental trauma ("I can't find my place in life") not only links personal to (socio-)political but also parlays itself into his aforementioned 'guidance'. The majority of the dialogue is thereby rendered as little more than paranoid rambling that reflects his socially-induced pessimism. He advocates a life of destitution for his child, arguing that the on-screen characters possess a liberation that he sorely lacks. At one point he draws a link between poverty and virginity that's confounding in its connotations. How regressive must the "system" in question be if it can provoke a confessional that bequeaths all too visible hardship unto the future?

As if these questions weren't daunting enough, Aristakisyan introduces a further dimension to proceedings that elevates his film into the dizzying realm of the spiritual. From its opening intertitle (which details the outlawing of Christians in Rome), Palms is interpolated by a biblical tapestry that explicitly manifests itself on a regular basis. The initial ellipsis outlines the influence of religion upon the present, and the compression of time draws attention to the previously-noted film stock whose observational utilization invites a comparison with the early works of the Lumière brothers. The director is thereby manipulating his film's temporal qualities against the context of cinema history, and by evoking this particular parallel he effectively locates Palms at the beginning of cinematic time (the date of 1990 reinforces the timelessness of the portrayal.) Having noted the imprint of a Christian fabric here, one can't help but follow a certain trail of thought: before all else, there was God - the creator; Aristakisyan's narrator/father here is the creator of both life and the film itself. His confused assertions can thereby (arguably) acquire the status of God's own words, and thus Palms itself is recast as a filmic embodiment of the Bible filtered through the prism of the 20th-century experience. The provocative implications of this are obvious, although nonetheless startling in their audacity. Moreover, this transfiguration requires the unborn child to metamorphose into Jesus himself - except that [Spoiler:] in actuality he doesn't receive the chance, for Aristakisyan makes clear that this is a child destined for abortion. The world depicted in Palms is consequently deprived of even the slightest possibility of redemption, and it therefore seems thoroughly appropriate for the narrator-as-God to claim that: "The end of the world is our only salvation."

Aristakisyan's success with Palms is a stupendous one, but it inevitably makes for strenuous viewing. His decision to attack the audience with a neverending stream of monotonous despair is one that provides few of the gratifications that we're accustomed to, even in an arthouse. One cannot rejoice at the formal beauty of the work, nor can we easily appreciate its thematics: some of the ideas that his narrator puts forth run against the grain of the liberal, Western viewer that the film will most appeal to (anti-abortion, anti-contraception etc.), and we can't help but wonder what exactly prompted such a brutal diatribe against the social order - but to do so is to lose sight of the film's intent, literally. The narration is, of course, inextricably linked to his images and it's these poignant vignettes of life on the fringes that allow us to comprehend the source of Aristakisyan's grievances. To his credit, the director humanizes his handicapped characters in a way that's rarely seen here (basically, he doesn't patronize them) and his dedication to authentically recording their lives gifts the film with the power of realism. So, when Palms concludes [Spoiler:] in a cemetery, with the phrase "This is my life!" on repeat, its ramifications (both material and celestial) are unnervingly tangible. If even the smallest amount of that reaction is used to regain our awareness of the less fortunate, then perhaps Aristakisyan's goal will have been achieved and maybe, in his worldview, salvation will be possible after all.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, 1999)

Soooo... this is one of the towering achievements of its decade, ja?! If there's one aspect of my taste that particularly stands out to me, it's the fact that I consistently find myself leaning towards the great spiritualist filmmakers for comfort: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Bresson. I didn't realise it before, but having seen Wind I don't think it's too much of a stretch to place Kiarostami alongside those greats (double this up with Taste of Cherry and I'm sold.)

The delicately languorous rhythms of Wind allow the audience to savour every sweet moment of this masterpiece, whilst contemplating the director's deft use of space (which, more than character or plot, is where I derive the bulk of the film's meaning.) Kiarostami's most overt visual tactic is to deploy breathtaking long-shots of the Iranian landscape, which not only acts as a tribute to this naturally ravishing country, but also serves to underline the relationship of character to the world beyond - a world that humbles any pretensions of self-importance by rendering everyone within it an indistinguishable dot against the might of its beauty. But Kiarostami doesn't stop there - he's concerned with matters beyond the physical, and accordingly utilizes an aural dimension that expands his scope considerably: a simple, but effective use of sound that alludes to the expanses outside our frame of vision. His soundtrack seemingly captures the wealth of rural and village life in its entirety, but on more cogent terms it also frequently separates ethereal from corporeal by presenting us with voices that aren't accounted for by on-screen events. Thus, numerous characters are heard but not seen, quietly compelling the viewer to confront the nature of (their?) material existence.

It's within this set-up that we're presented the character of Behzad, our narrative's channel for these concerns. As a possible filmmaker (I don't think it's ever made entirely clear?) he arguably functions as Kiarostami's alter-ego here, whilst his relatively Westernized outlook simultaneously embodies him with the traits of the film's audience. The former role gifts the film with much of its peculiar comicality (the grievances and dubious ethics intrinsic to the filmmaking process), whilst the latter reinforces the distinctly metaphysical concerns at its core. This duality reaches a literal and figurative altitude with a delightful running gag that finds Behzad having to drive to the top of a mountain graveyard in order to perform the cosmopolitan task of answering a mobile phone. Aside from the humour inherent in these trips, the journey is also a curious ascent towards death that metaphorically falls short of reaching Kiarostami's heavenly skies. Implicitly, the phone contributes to the deprivation of Behzad's spiritual self through its inextricable link to his inferred past which, it should be noted, is what provides him with the decidedly inhumane goal of awaiting a village elder's death. The driving force of this narrative then, is the attempt to reconcile those aforementioned divergences between ethereal and corporeal, but within Behzad's character. Kiarostami's typically subtle observations in this regard belie the complexity of Wind's undercurrents, which - for a film that's preoccupied with the idea of death (it's referenced in more ways than I could possibly recount) - ultimately make this one of the most moving paeans to the marvels of human life that I've ever encountered.

Sound of the Mountain (Naruse, 1954)

Mmmhmm! Sound of the Mountain (1954) is a film that practically invites comparisons with that Yasujiro fellow, innit? Post-war familial strife featuring Setsuko Hara as the perfect daughter-in-law, and Sô Yamamura as her father-in-law! Shit, Tokyo Story redux (with Yamamura instead of Chishu Ryu?!) Well, okay, no. Sound of the Mountain isn't really one of the twenty greatest films evah... but the rigorous minimalism of Ozu's masterpiece makes for an interesting contrast with Naruse's more relaxed approach towards similar subject matter. Naruse's construction is by no means as perfect as Ozu's, and his commentaries re: family and society are probably less acute, but his emotional scope is arguably more expansive and the cumulative effect is just as overwhelming.

Sound of the Mountain also invites comparisons with a couple of other important Japanese films: namely, Naruse's own Repast (1951) and Ozu's Late Spring (1949) - and it compares pretty favourably to both of those wonderful efforts imo. Repast presented us with a couple's marital woes, and their somewhat reluctant attempts to work through them. Mountain offers up the same actors from the earlier film (Hara + the very underrated Ken Uehara), who are again asked to enact a marriage on the rocks - except this time, Naruse's pessimism is considerably amplified to the point where the tensions of Repast seem far tamer as a result (of course, this is all brilliantly disguised by the director, but I shall return to that in a sec!) As for Late Spring, our first view of the wife (Kikuko) in this drama is a shot of Hara riding into the frame on her bicycle, complete with that radiant smile of hers - and only the cine-illiterate among us would fail to make the link between that image and the Ozu, right? I'm not entirely sure how Late Spring was perceived in mid-1950s Japan, but I can't help but feel that Naruse is actively drawing upon certain elements of that film here: the father-daughter relationship at its core is echoed by the father/daughter-in-law one here. Both paternal figures want the best for the Setsuko Hara character, but crucially Yamamura's Shingo is both less able to provide it and more misguided in his attempts to do so - a sign, perhaps, of the feelings of disconnect that permeate so many of these characters' relationships. Moreover, by evoking the image of Noriko, the director is surely utilizing the virtuous, idealistic aspects of Hara's star persona? In short: Naruse essentially seems to be reviewing the couple from Repast three years later, by way of Yasujiro Ozu, and his conclusions (which are even more damning) suggest that any optimism that the audience took away from the earlier film (which wasn't much) is in need of abrupt revision.

Judging by the very few Naruses that I've now seen, I'm starting to think that one of the director's overriding concerns is the disintegration of traditional family units? Nowhere (lol, I've only seen four films!) is that better expressed than in Sound of the Mountain imo, which is a film whose characters all fail miserably in their socially-prescribed roles. Shingo (the father-in-law) explicitly states that he judges himself by the success of his children's marriages, so the film's conclusion must leave him with very low self-esteem indeed; Shuichi (the husband) is a philanderer and a drunkard; his sister is revealed to be incompetent as both housewife and mother; even Kinuko, the "other woman" of this piece, subverts the villainous nature of her role and also [Spoiler:] becomes pregnant, thereby breaking the understanding between herself and Shuichi. As for Kikuko, despite her best intentions her marriage is a failure that provokes a displaced (but mutual) affection for Shingo. Furthermore, to return to that earlier point, Naruse recalls the myth of Noriko and her resilience only to shatter any illusions that we may have about that character's ability to survive in his filmic world. He manipulates Hara's role as "Eternal Virgin" in order to suggest its regressive qualities (compare Kikuko with Repast's Michiyo), and - in one of Mountain's more startling moments - he even alludes to the character's underwhelming performance in the bedroom. Such frankness seems to be a typically Narusean trait, and the director takes it a step further with his attitudes towards the pivotal [Spoiler:] abortion, which is presented so matter-of-factly (we have no idea that the decision is even being contemplated) that one can't help but reconsider Kikuko's own role in the breakdown of her marriage.

Whilst Naruse certainly has an interest in the sympathetic qualities that are inherent in Hara, it's a concern that seeks to undermine these attributes in order to achieve a more complex presentation of modern life imo. By shifting his emotional focal point from the issue of marriage towards the dynamics of the Kikuko/Shingo relationshp, Naruse examines cross-generational failures but also exploits the dramatic ebbs and flows that characterize their platonic (but possibly more?) love. Their social roles prevent them from being completely honest with one another, and their close friendship means that both repress certain facts in order to protect their precarious sense of harmony - and the audience is as often as blinded by this as they are. Indeed, one could argue that Mountain is a film preoccupied with that which is concealed, and Naruse's aim is to uncover those secrets and expose them for the glaring inconsistencies that they create in our idyllic portrait of family life. The director's visual presentation augments such notions, for the world that's provided to us is a lush and lively one filled with light - i.e. one that creates a notable discord against the individual turmoils that exist within it. Naruse's decision to maintain this façade even as his characters are in perpetual crisis has a devastating purpose, because during the film's finale - when this surface has finally been overwhelmed by anguish - there's nothing left for audience to do but stare down reality alongside Kikuko and Shingo. And it's this that makes Sound of the Mountain a definitive example of Naruse's unbridled pessimism, because over the course of 96 minutes he has effectively deprived his characters of all their aspirations and left them with nothing but "an unobstructed view of everything." And it's that "unobstructed view" which heartbreakingly reveals how hopeless life really is in Naruse's world.

La Ronde (Ophüls, 1950)

La Ronde has such a winning sense of humour, no? There's a moment in the film where a scene abruptly stops, and jumps to a shot of our cinematic guide (played with flair by Anton Walbrook) cutting away at some film strips. "Censorship!", he exclaims, before Strauss' delicious waltz resumes alongside the the aftermath of the offending scene. A moment like this should remove us from Ophüls' filmic world, but somehow it manages to feels like a continuation of its organic flow. Ophüls' ability to create a unique atmosphere of frivolity through his gorgeous sets and the trademark camerawork makes such bizarre humour completely plausible, and a delight to watch.

Like its structural cousin Le Plaisir, La Ronde is so charming on a purely superficial level that it's easy to dismiss as nothing more than cinematic confectionery. And just like its cousin, La Ronde's spellbinding surfaces conceal surprising levels of depth. After all, this idea of the "roundabout" of human desire is - at its core - a depressing notion, no? Ophüls' irresistible artifice allows the concept to become palatable for audiences, but it also underlines the artificial nature of love in the film. Ophüls' pessimistic portrayal of romance, complete with constantly shifting relationships that end with little regard for either of the lovers (especially the women, for this director is always critical of the patriarchal order), is as fun-but-hollow as the mise-en-scène that's constructed around it. For all it's sparkle, it's the poignant moments of La Ronde that leave the most indelible of impressions: lovers being stood up, disregarded, forgotten. Of course, Ophüls' presentation of this is so fresh and 'modern' that we can't help but go along for the ride - before realising at the end that we too have been "used" by the romantic dazzle of the film itself.

Ophüls' style is as faultless as ever, but I feel his narrative occasionally lets him down here. La Ronde deals with ten different stories, and to maintain dramatic momentum when the plot is degenerating/regenerating every few minutes is a difficult task. Fortunately, Ophüls is talented enough to iron over these narrative creases making this is a minor gripe with what is undoubtedly another major work from this most brilliant of directors. Although I feel that Le Plaisir arguably performs some of the same intents better (it's certainly tighter in structure, and possibly THE peak of his stylization), this one still comes thoroughly recommended.

Repast (Naruse, 1951)

Repast is my first experience with this underseen Japanese director, and it conforms to all the Narusean traits that I was expecting: bleakness, pessimism, embitterment etc. - but in spite of that, those are not the feeling that linger in my mind? Naruse's observations re: the minutiae of everyday existence are so meticulous that one leaves the film feeling privileged for having experienced such a rich portrait of these characters' lives. He establishes this idea of gender conformity (and its mundane consequences) from the get-go: Michiyo (a sorta deglammed Setsuko Hara) plays the role of subservient housewife to Hatsu's (Ken Uehara) indifferent breadwinner. With Michiyo's every movement however, one detects her sense of discontentment. This unhappiness can be stifled for the sake of social convention if this uninspiring stalemate is maintained by the couple, but the narrative's introduction of Hatsu's niece Satoko upsets this status quo. Satoko's brash (but perhaps modern?) outlook functions as the catalyst that threatens the order - aka, Michiyo's entire world.

Naruse is committed to depicting his characters as three-dimensional human beings here, which adds to both the realism and the complexity of the film's emotional undercurrents. Michiyo - as Hara plays her - is a character who demands our affections whilst stubbornly refusing our sympathy (she even says as much in the film - that scene where her cousin inadvertently hits upon her marital pride? Wow!) She's perhaps more responsible for her relationship woes than her husband, due to her inability to express herself before reaching a breaking point - although this arguably says as much about her social role and her desire to maintain the patriarchal order than it does about her personality itself. As for Hatsu, he's miles removed from being cast as the villain of this piece (as one might've expected) - his love for Michiyo is evident, he's simply a relatively hapless and unobservant individual caught up in the monotonous rhythms dictated by his own role in this order. One of the film's most touching scenes finds Michiyo bumping into an old schoolfriend in Tokyo (now an impoverished single-mother) who states that: "A woman on her own can't achieve much." There's a curious irony to these words however, for the director repeatedly cuts back to shots of Hatsu - shown to be completely incapable by his self during Michiyo's absence from the household. This deft suggestion that men on their own aren't much better seems typical of the director's aspiration towards a full-bodied presentation of life. The design of this presentation finds Naruse sympathetic to his characters, but successfully preserving enough distance to remain forever critical of the structures that provoke their grievances.

One of the reasons for Naruse's exclusion from the Holy Trinity of Japanese masters is his (apparent, for I am not well-versed enough to comment yet!) lack of a definitive stylistic imprint à la Mizoguchi or Ozu. I'll discover whether or not this is true as I experience more of his work, but the director certainly has a clear grasp on how to tailor his visual style to some level of substance. The artificiality of the director's sets has a curious relation to the acute emotional realism of his story, and creates a dichotomy that Naruse is surely aware of. Indeed, he actively exploits it - after all, his films are all about the (potential) friction caused by people attempting to defy established conceptions of behaviour, no? And I think this plays into his manipulation of the spatial dimensions of Repast - the whole idea of man-made constraints repressing characters... which, incidentally, is something that Mizoguchi utilizes as well imo. Moreover, there's a consistent separation of foreground and background in the film's domestic spaces, which serve to further isolate Michiyo whlist entrapping her in the confines of that godforsaken kitchen in which she's so frequently seen during the first hour or so - the kitchen, tellingly, is in background space. The effect of this is to render the framing of Michiyo in open spaces a more refreshing experience for both character and audience, in short: we share the delicious taste of her freedom with her.

Repast wouldn't be a Naruse film if this lasted for too substantial a portion of time, however. The "taste of freedom" is a peculiar one: Michiyo's family are outwardly hospitable but nonetheless tangibly lukewarm to her extended stay, whilst her potential love interest ends up [Spoiler:] with Satoko, the one character she overtly dislikes! The outside world is incapable of assisting in Michiyo's liberation, and thus, we are left with an inevitable conclusion which can be seen as slightly problematic in terms of the film's gender politics - not so much for the [Spoiler:] return to domesticity, which I think Naruse is weary of, but more for Michiyo's voiceover which wonders if: "maybe this is a woman's happiness?" On the one hand, Hatsu's decision to come to Tokyo and - more importantly - the importance of the context in which he uses the phrase "I'm sorry!" (after saying that he's starving), shows that he is willing to respect and value her more. On the other hand, the final scene leaves us with some doubts regarding the extent of this compromise ("I'm tired!"), and Michiyo's internal monologue is at odds with her demeanour which hints at a realisation of this act of submission. Repast's finale leaves the audience with a bittersweet aftertaste for sure, but it's Naruse's generosity in providing us with even the slightest glimmer of hope that I'll take away from this. And because of that, I find it to be a perfect introduction to his work? Oh, and also the fact that it's a friggin' terrific film, LOL!

Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

How does one even begin to discuss this dizzyingly complex work of art? Kiarostami's aesthetic choices give us the illusion that this will unfold as something of a docu-drama, and certainly the blurring of fact and fiction plays into that. But this is so much more? In one sense, it's a humbling profile of a man in clear spiritual need. His decision to live the life of his most beloved filmmaker perhaps alludes to a national identity crisis, but on a more personal level it affords him the social recognition and respect that he would otherwise be severely lacking. Sabzian frequently mentions the idea of his "suffering" and a perceived indifference towards the marginalized lower-classes, and one of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when he admits that he stole money to simply "have a meal." In short, this is an examination of social status and the mobility that certain professions - in this case filmmaking - can provide. In another sense, it's a more formal exercise in deconstructing that very process itself. Kiarostami's film is a fragmented one, intent on preserving the ambiguity of its characters' moralities and motivations. As previously stated, it blurs those lines between what's real and what's fabricated, and never wholly makes clear when exactly Sabzian stops playing a "role", so to speak. Additionally, the film plays with perspective by offering us a plurality of opinions (from the family, the journalist, the taxi driver, Sabzian himself) that thwarts the conceit of an "absolute truth." Thus, the penetrating use of the titular "close-up" is rendered deliberately ironic, much like the film itself: the director's confession of this lack of cinematic authenticity is, in actuality, an "absolute truth" in its own right. Kiarostami is too astute to weigh his film down with such hefty theoretical baggage however, and his final gift is one of infectious compassion. The film's extraordinary conclusion is not only a moving tribute to a human capacity for empathy, but also a tantalising confrontation of the audience: by undermining the potentially overwhelming sentimentality of this moment with his disruption of sound design, Kiarostami is effectively asking us to fill in the emotional blanks of these final scenes. And therein lies the beauty, for in spite of the intimidating nature of its conception, Close-Up's generosity ensures that both Sabzian and the audience are involved in the creation of this masterpiece. And surely, that is the greatest accomplishment of them all?

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, 1956)

Bigger Than Life professes to tell the story of a "miracle drug" (cortisone) and the adverse reactions that it provokes in an unsuspecting schoolteacher and his picture-perfect family. This isn't simply a cautionary tale about the potential perils of drug usage, however - Ray's scope broadens to attack the very idea of placing blind faith in such unproven solutions. Moreover, whilst watching the film one realises that the role of drugs in its thematics is surprisingly minimal: the most pertinent concern lies with the "American Dream" and the fragility of that concept. The director's meticulous attention to detail deftly subverts this paradigm until it's exposed as little more than a fraudulent and unattainable fantasy - and rarely has the dissolution of an ideal made for such absorbing viewing.

From the outset, any illusions of a middle-class utopia are quickly undermined. The personal life of Ed Avery (James Mason, providing one of the extraordinary screen performances) forms a diametrical opposition to the petit bourgeois impeccability that his household radiates in more public environments. Ed is discontent: he feels undervalued as a schoolteacher (reflected by his poor salary), and accordingly feels compelled to take on an 'inferior' part-time job at a garage; he's amiable, but cares little for the soirées that his social status deems a necessity (he sits out most of an early bridge game); he's awkward with his son, dispassionate with his wife, and at one point he flat-out states that "we're dull!" when referring to his family. Ray's mastery means that the very slightest of details can further contribute to these early assessments of Ed's predicament: like the quaint bow-tie that he wears, signifying his perceived superiority over his colleagues; or even Mason's distinctive English accent, which works at odds with the self-image of an all-American high school football hero that he memorializes (and later, attempts to project onto his son), and effectively underlines the fallacies inherent in his lifestyle.

Having established this façade then, the film introduces its "miracle drug" - whose negative side-effects are not isolated from these initial dramas. The cortisone functions here as a catalyst for Ed, unleashing the insecurities that already exist within him, thereby weaving a megalomaniac from the fabric of his own personality. "Bizarre" is perhaps the only word one can use to describe a film audacious enough to equate the addictive pursuit of the American Dream with a dependence on prescription drugs, but Ray somehow pulls the conceit off with aplomb. Ed's increasing paranoia allows Ray to create a scathing indictment of middle America, damning the conformity of his characters whilst manipulating the sudden realisation of their goals in order to unnerve them back into conventionality. It should be noted that Ed is not the only character who slides into mental turmoil - his wife Lou's complete regression into the role of submissive absorbent of Ed's verbal abuse ("Why couldn't I have married my intellectual equal?") is equally delusional, as is her misplaced blind faith in the power of love. What eventually emerges is a despondent portrait of bourgeois life in which Ray brutally unmasks a crisis of self-entrapment - for which he provides no route for escape.

It's difficult to imagine there being more conclusive justification for Nicholas Ray's place in the canon than his achievement here (and should such justification exist, then he needs to be propelled into the upper echelons of that pantheon immediately.) The nature of Ray's material requires him to indulge the melodramatic aspects of the story, so his sets are appropriately bold whilst remaining infinitely rewarding. His use of colour is especially noteworthy - dull, lifeless hues dominate the palette for the early scenes (bar the odd splash of ominous reds) but a revelatory 'makeover' sequence in a fashion store (which Hitchcock surely ripped off for Vertigo) sees the addition of much brighter shades that highlight the growing disconnect between Ed's reality and the socio-economic ambitions that ultimately prove beyond him. These ambitions are reinforced in the familial home - that paradise of domesticity which Ray perturbingly reconceives as a suffocating nether-world of blandness - where a series of posters depicting various European cities prominently adorn the Averys' walls. Indeed, one of the most brilliant compositions in the film sees Ed and Lou at opposite ends of the widescreen vista, with a map of the world engulfing the space between them. The director's dexterity over his mise-en-scène doesn't end there, however - to borrow just a few of the more memorable examples: a staircase is transformed into a metaphor for Ed's mental state; a cracked mirror temporarily shatters his unruly ego; and most chillingly, a manipulation of light sources allows his menacing shadow to fulfil the film's titular promise during a scene of intellectual and emotional torture. Throughout the film, Ray constantly searches for ways to further articulate and augment his narrative's psychological complexities, culminating in a harrowing finale to Ed's mental traumas where he assumes the role of a Bible-thumping charlatan and spits out the film's most immortal line: "GOD WAS WRONG!" Both visually and aurally, the madness hits a peak here with the grotesque excesses of materialism crashing with a thud as a mocking soundtrack emanates from the television (that most iconic of consumerist symbols) in the background.

Bigger Than Life is essentially a cinematic treatment of those all-too familiar Hollywood themes: the American dream, suburban life, the hollowness that resides within etc. etc. And yet, despite being a fifty-year-old melodrama, it miraculously seems to have retained every ounce of its potency over the years - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's the definitive film on those aforementioned themes, by quite some distance. Aside from Nicholas Ray's previously-noted talents, one could argue that the film's outright success can in part be attributed to the way in which it uses its core social concerns as a platform from which to explore other ideas. Thus, the issue of schoolteachers' paychecks assumes relevance (one could argue that it's economic demands that disrupt and then drive Ed's state of mind) alongside the limitations of medical science, and during the final act the film takes on a quasi-religious dimension with Ed's numerous biblical references. One could even go so far as to draw parallels between the latter stages of Ed's illness, and the (supposed) totalitarians of history. Does the film attempt to implicate those "bigger than life" figures alongside Ed Avery? Such theories are perhaps far-fetched, but the fact that the text allows for even their consideration speaks volumes about the respect with which Ray gifts his audience, not to mention the thought-provoking substance of his art. Another facet of the film's genius is its sly sense of humour: the external world (the school, the hospital, the pharmacy, the milkman) frequently provides a source of comic relief for the audience that's notably lacking in the internal environments of the Avery household, allowing the film to briefly flirt with the territory of entertainment.

Of course, perhaps the most fundamental point to make about Bigger Than Life's success is the most obvious one: it's a superb character study that penetrates extraordinary depths during its relatively short length. One cannot emphasise the greatness of James Mason's work here enough, his ability to sell a role with so much room for failure is a triumph far beyond the descriptions that mere words can provide. As for the character that he sells - Ed Avery is a man whose not a victim of insanity so much as he is of his own repression. What's so striking about this portrayal is how ordinary it is. Take the notorious parents' evening scene at the school: it's not so much the philosophy that Ed spouts during his diatribe that's a cause for contention (some of the parents in this scene agree with him, and the idea that children are born bad and must be socialized into goodness is not one without its believers), but the spite with which he espouses it: "childhood is a congenital disease, and the task of education is to cure it!" Furthermore, Ed's initial scenes after consuming the cortisone can just as easily be described as "enthusiastic" and "passionate" as they can "volatile" and "unhinged." The unease which this film induces is a result of Ray's decision to make Ed an utterly average human being with a completely tangible lifestyle - in short, he comes to represent the everyman: aka, the target audience itself. As a result, the film's overwhemlingly pessimistic worldview combines with the precariousness of Ed's social acceptability to create a critique that's conclusively damning of us. Ray provokes us to reconsider the security of our own lives, and orders us to examine whether our private worlds are capable of spinning violently out of control should a "miracle" occur. That a mere film could render such outlandish situations completely plausible is what makes Bigger Than Life - and not cortisone - the bitterest of all pills to swallow.

A few quick notes on the ending, which requires HEAVY spoiler alerts:

[Spoiler:] If people perceive the ending of this film to be a "happy" one that diminishes the rest of the film (and, judging by the film's inexplicably low IMDb rating, I'm going to presume that they do) then allow me to vehemently disagree. To see light here is to remain blissfully ignorant of what Ray has spent the previous 90 minutes telling us: which is that Ed's 'madness', his arrogance, his snobbery and his prejudices were already within him as an individual prior to the cortisone. Despite the doctors' insistence for him to "learn" from his experience at film's end, there's nothing substantial enough to suggest that he will have done so. By hugging Lou and Richie, he is entering back into the problematic social repression that we witnessed during the first part of the film. In essence: he will be living a lie. Moreover, the experience that his friends and family have shared with him, and the horrid depths to which he sank are hardly memories that are going to be easily erased in these characters' mindsets. Of particular importance here is the role of Richie, where one recalls the ghastly confrontation at dinner over the milk pitcher as Ray's camera slowly tracks forward - erasing both Ed and Lou from the frame and focusing solely on the effects of this breakdown upon Richie himself. As anyone should well be aware, childhood traumas leave a colossal impression, and what Richie has experienced (his dad attempting to murder him) is no doubt going to shape his development more than any of Ed's mathematical inquisitions ever could. Finally, I suggested earlier that it was the economic demands that were driving Ed's recklessness - well, we conclude with no resolution to his financial woes. If anything, he is in a weaker position than before. So I repeat: do not be fooled by the Hollywood machine here, Ray's subversions deserve far closer inspection.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti, 1960)

So... those Italians pretty much stole the cinematic limelight in 1960, eh? Fellini's La Dolce vita and Antonioni's L'Avventura are wondrous achievements, and amongst my fave films ever. But Luchino Visconti may well be my favourite Italian director of them all... well, if he wasn't before then he's more than likely won that title now that I've seen Rocco and His Brothers - his own contribution to that extraordinary year in film.

Visconti's film is a melodrama of epic proportions, enriched by the decision to treat it with a realist aesthetic (of sorts.) The effects of this dichotomy make for exhausting viewing: Visconti's earthy presentation not only grounds the socio-political concerns of his saga, but simultaneously highlights the discrepancy that exists between style and narrative thereby allowing the inevitable tragedies to amplify considerably as a result. This isn't simply melodrama for the sake of it - the meticulously-plotted fortunes of the Parondi brothers are a filmic embodiment of the immigrant experience itself. Structurally, Rocco consists of five uneven segments that are (very) loosely based around each of the five siblings. Each brother deals with the issue of potential urban alienation differently, with their dreams and setbacks subsequently charged by the parallelling ordeals of thousands of others, motivating the film's drive towards operatic excess. Within this grandiosity however, lies an identifiable sense of honesty that allows (and sometimes even forces) its audience to share in the characters' hardships, and lends a universality to a film that's quintessentially Italian in its nature.

Rocco is, at its essence, a story about cultural displacement - specifically, the transportation of the traditional family-oriented codes of southern Italy's peasant villages into the industrial conurbation of Milan in the north. Over the course of 170 minutes, Visconti reveals the futile attempts to reconcile these two worlds and their opposing value systems. It follows then, that over those three hours we also bear witness to the breakdown of the Parondi family unit, set against the backdrop of an impervious 'modern world.' Tellingly, the two brothers that most successfully engage with this new environment (Vincenzo and Ciro) are also the two revealed to have the least concern for their background, and are ensuingly provided with scant weight in the dramatic showdowns that define the film. It is with the sensitive, sentimental brothers - the corrupted, hot-headed Simone and the backward-looking dreamer of Rocco - with whom the impassioned core of the film is allineated. Accordingly, it is they who enact the bulk of this filmic 'opera' alongside Nadia: the woman who comes between them, thus functioning as the catalyst for all the drama.

Nadia is a character who defies traditional notions of sexuality, unlike the men that she associates with: it's she who sees Simone as another fling, whilst it's he who insists upon a serious relationship; and her ennobling love for Rocco is countered by his steadfast devotion to preserving the family unit. The dynamics of the Rocco-Nadia-Simone relationship shatter each character's dreams of romance, an act that proves to be catastrophic for these most impulsive of brothers: Simone slides into barbarism and financial debt, and Rocco suffers heartbreak and an unwanted career in order to save his brother. Rocco's self-sacrifice is in vain however, for he clings to ideals that are rendered irrelevant by his new surroundings and his overwhelming capacity for forgiveness does more to destroy Simone (and by consequence, the entire Parondi family) than it does to save him.

The director's dedication to emotional detail here is as acute as ever, in spite of his expansive scope. To this end, he gains explosive performances from his cast members (Annie Girardot's Nadia and Renato Salvatori's Simone in particular are up there with the greats), ensuring that the theatrics are never less than utterly absorbing. Moreover, he uses editing to create a series of dramatic juxtapositions that maximise the film's volatility - scenes infused with promise and hope are frequently followed by those that destroy such illusions, hurtling both character and audience back to painful reality. The film's most brilliant sequences are also it's most harrowing: Nadia's rape, in which Visconti aligns us with Rocco's perspective of paralyzed horror; and her later murder by Simone, in which the intercutting between her screams and Rocco's victory in the boxing ring not only heightens the rhythmic violence of this world, but also implicates the younger brother in his former lover's death. If one feels compelled to look away in disgust during these scenes (as I did), it's because director and actor do a terrific job of winning our belief in these damaged individuals. After all, the irresistible optimism radiated in an early sequence - where the still-united brothers are nudged by their mother out into the snow to find work - is as difficult an image to etch from one's memory as the tragedy of later scenes. Although subsequent events cast a shadow over the reading of this initial portrait as familial affinity, it's one that persists - and one that becomes almost a necessity after our final image of the main characters in Rosaria's bedroom.

Visconti's elaborate meditation on the eradication of national unity and spiritual harmony is, needless to say, an experience of tremendous power. Thankfully, the director is merciful enough to provide us with some compensation for our exhaustion at film's end with the character of Luca - the fifth, and youngest, brother. Luca exists in Rocco's epic canvas as less a fully-fledged character and more a reflection of our own role: the quiet observer, learning from and being affected by the wreckage around him. By gently guiding him towards the faint possibility of a more progressive future, Visconti is effectively talking to his audience as well. Where Rocco, Simone, Vincenzo and Ciro have failed, maybe... just maybe, the rest of us can succeed?

The Reckless Moment (Ophüls, 1949)

Again, very quick and very informal thoughts on an Ophüls classic that deserves a much lengthier appraisal:

Now, to move on to The Reckless Moment (1949) - this has never been a film that I'd really pegged down as essential (although The Deep End certainly provoked my interest.) Perhaps it's because Ophüls' American work is forever overshadowed by the brilliance of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)? Well, let's get this straight: The Reckless Moment is most definitely the equal of its acclaimed predecessor - and I'm tempted to stick my neck out on the line and say that I might even prefer the later film.

Apparently, this is both a film noir and a melodrama. Great, but those terms belie the fact that this is also a psychosexual thriller and a surprising examination of post-war bourgeois life. Perhaps the best description of this would be a noir of domesticity, where the idyllic suburban home is subverted into a menacing cascade of eerie shadows and claustrophobic commodities that inhibit the comfort of this perfect lifestyle (hence, Mrs. Harper's constant need to escape this environment.) Ophüls gets a kick out of toying with audience expectations here: one of the film's most mesmerizing sequences - [Spoiler:] Mrs. Harper's removal of the dead body - unfolds on-screen in virtual silence. The director brilliantly strips his cinema to its barest essentials, revealing how the power of narrative + image is a far more potent solution than the exaggerated string accompaniment that Hollywood believes should be taking place at this moment.

The characterizations here are as brilliant as any others in the cinema of Ophüls, and keep well in tone with the director's concern with subversion: at some point (perhaps in the drugstore?) our heroine (Mrs. Harper) and our villain (Donnelly) meet in the middle, causing a gradual merging of their filmic roles - it's as if Mrs. Harper's rigid adherence to maintaining order and her refusal to reveal emotional complexity (until the astonishing conclusion) provokes a transposition of her audience identifiability onto Donnelly, who accordingly thwarts his criminal role and veers the film into a universal hymn for the socially entrapped. Thus, when The Reckless Moment concludes by conforming to the character trajectories that the viewer initially expected, we're left in shock. Hell, I'm still in shock now. Rarely have I seen films that are so damning of the status quo, nor have I come across a "happy ending" quite like this: with the "happy" so thoroughly undermined. How appropriate then, that it was the great Max Ophüls who was responsible for this audacious effort.

Oh, and just to quickly say that both Joan Bennett and James Mason are perfect here. And I found the representation of the black maid character here so refreshing, given the context. Bravo!

Le Plaisir (Ophüls, 1952)

VERY quick and VERY informal thoughts:

Le Plaisir (1952) is perhaps the best example of Ophüls' magical camerawork that I can think of (I really need to rewatch Madame de...! Oh, and that's one of the greatest films ever so GET TO IT if you haven't already, cunt.) The opening sequence finds his camera frivolously sweeping into a ball, waltzing past the absurdly attractive artifice of the ballroom, before performing an effortless dance with a masked lothario which intensifies to a literal breaking point - one that concludes by exposing the playboy as an elderly married man!

One would think that Ophüls would let up slightly after this breathtaking introduction, but that's unheard of in this director's rulebook. He simply builds on that momentum and takes it to further extremes: other stylistic masterworks featured in this one film include a wistful glide around the exterior of a lively brothel, and a single-take PoV shot of an attempted suicide. In terms of structure, Le Plaisir is an unusual translation of three stories into a portmanteau film featuring two small (but very effective) bookends and a lengthier central segment. Each explores the pursuit of pleasure, and the ways in which our desires can overwhelm our lives. Even the charming middle-section concludes its countryside soirée on an unbearably poignant note before quietly criticising the amorality of its patriarchs. Typically for Ophüls, he veils his critiques with a stylistic opulence (I dare someone not to be awed by the film's mise-en-scène) which is too frequently dismissed for lacking substance. What this fails to consider is that Ophüls' style is his substance, and thus the grandeur of these sets is a moving overcompensation for the hollowness of these characters' lives. When the film concluded by stating that "happiness is not a joyful thing", I actually found myself moved to tears? LOL. This is so emblematic of Max: his cinematic seduction is a delicious-but-frail guise for the undercurrents of emotion that lurk beneath, and without even fully comprehending why, the audience always finds itself moved by film's end.

Quick shout-outs to Danielle Darrieux, Jean Gabin (always marvellous, the both of them) and especially Simone Simon's work in the final segment. Also, the scene at the church is sickeningly beautiful.